Skydiving Just Is

As a much more flexible and considerably less brittle college student, I gave skydiving a go. I wasn't an adrenaline junkie nor did I do it on a wild dare. I was simply curious about it. Early adulthood is when you ponder such things. I was a college kid and people expect college kids to do stupid things. Who was I to disappoint?

In the early 70s, skydiving didn't much resemble how people learn today - no sissy tandem rigs where you lay in a sling beneath your instructor. We didn't just sprawl there like some sot in a backyard hammock, relieved of all responsibility for our own safety. Nope, back then, our first jump was also our first solo jump.

Training was very straightforward. A jumpmaster explained the basics and we took turns hopping off a picnic table to simulate landing - landing speed being more or less equivalent to jumping off a 3 ft. high object (chute deployed of course).

After we fully qualified in "picnic table egress", we lined up for equipment. Mine consisted of some old, military surplus coveralls - dirty and ripped from less-than-graceful student landings - and an ancient green-painted football helmet minus the facemask and quarterback glory.

After the coveralls came the main parachute, a mass of webbing and cross-strung straps that seemed to find all my most uncomfortable niches. To that, I clipped a small reserve chute to my belly. There was more instruction on operating ripcords and cutting the main away if I became tangled. This was no-frills skydiving at its most basic.

Looking like a paratrooper on D-Day, I waddled toward the airplane - a rattling, wheezing, and aging Cessna 180. It was bright green and painted with rollers left over from a neighboring barn raising. My last instructions detailed how to get out of the airplane and an inventory of who would jump first if the airplane malfunctioned.

Three of us squeezed into the airplane, sitting on the bare floor and holding our static lines - a cloth strap attached to the airplane on one end and to my parachute on the other. When I left the airplane, it would give me three seconds of freefall before pulling my chute out for me. It was as simple as falling off…well, an airplane.

I was last in and first out. I sat facing backward and next to the door. Curiously, I wasn't nervous. I just enjoyed the ride. I suppose my mighty leaps from the picnic tables must have imbued me with an immortal spirit.

At altitude, the jumpmaster reached between my legs and opened the door. It flew up into the wing leaving me five inches from the opening and staring into 3,000 ft. of empty sky. About 30 seconds later, he hooked my static line to a small attachment and ordered me out of the airplane. I scooted over to the open door and dangled my feet outside for a few moments before placing my left foot on a 5-inch long protruding step. From there it was an easy swing out to grab the wing strut. There I stood - one foot on the step and the other swinging free - until he gave me the signal to go.

When I felt his light touch on the back of my leg, I let go.

Even at 120 mph, I felt motionless in the sky. Not floating. Not rushing headlong at the ground. I just hung in the sky like a hazy sun on a dog day afternoon. When I glanced back up at the airplane, its door just closed and it flew away without me.

I was alone.

My three-second freefall took about 3 hours. The wind rushed past my face and puffed my wobbling cheeks out into a crazy, Dizzy Gillespie grin. I felt no weight from the hefty parachute. The cutting straps eased. Below, toy cows grazed toy pastures next to toy barns. It seemed like my three-seconds would easily stretch to eternity.

But they didn't. I literally reached the end of my rope.

The static line gave a mighty - though strangely weightless - heave. My feet flew over my head and I was suddenly in the cool shade of my inflated parachute. The windy roar was gone, replaced by braying cattle and quiet conversations between people several thousand feet below. There have been few times in my life that I felt so peaceful and alone. Just me, a gentle breeze, and the softest sounds of civilization I've ever heard. Under the canopy, there was still no sensation of movement. The ground didn't get measurably closer. It looked the much the same at 2000 feet as it had at 1000.

I explored the control toggles, making wide, lazy turns. In each turn, my legs flew gently into the arch and I could feel the faintest pull of gravity on my boots, proving to me that humans never really escape their world, even here, high above it all.

At about 500 feet, people intruded. I could hear my instructors telling me how to set up for landing. In position, I turned into the wind and began to drop straight down. Still, only physics told me I was falling. There was no sensation of movement until I got near enough to the ground to see my shadow. Even then, I didn't feel like I was moving. I felt the ground was rising up to meet me.

I finally converged with my shadow over a small circle of loose gravel. My feet crunched and I dropped and rolled just as if it was my tenth time off the picnic table.

And then it was over.

So what was it like?

The only word that comes to mind is curious. It was neither "death-defying" nor particularly exciting. It was quiet and gentle and peaceful, but also very subtle, like the smile of a pretty girl. Although the experience is as vivid to me today as it was more than 30 years ago, I still have trouble describing it.

I've tried to write about it many times since then, but I never fully capture how it felt. At first, this frustrated me. But as I grow older, I realize it's just one of those experiences as individual as snowflakes and subtle as the arc of the moon. There is no explaining it. There is no describing it. Words fail.

It just is.

This is an exclusive Omnipotent Poobah Speaks post.

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Monday, June 12, 2006

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